PolitiFact's Lie of the Year choice sparks condemnation across liberal blogosphere
The folks at PolitiFact knew their choice for the Lie of the Year -- the statement from some Democrats that House Republicans voted to end Medicare by approving a budget which substantially changed the program -- would be controversial in some quarters.
But the explosion of criticism which followed their announcement Tuesday was still sweeping, passionate and intense. Across the blogosphere and punditocracy, outlets such as New York Times writer Paul Krugman, Gawker, The New Republic, Media Matters and Talking Points Memo condemned the choice, insisting the claim about Medicare was not a lie.
Krugman, who titled his blog post protesting the choice "PolitiFact R.I.P.," summed up the thinking in most quarters, saying that the new privatized system advocated in the budget for people age 55 and younger would have essentially eliminated the program as a public, guaranteed benefit: "The answer is, of course, obvious: the people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other. So they’ve bent over backwards to appear “balanced” — and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant."
Because PolitiFact is dinging a Democratic party talking point after two straight years of highlighting GOP attacks as Lie of The Year, there's a suspicion of false equivalency going on here.
PolitiFact has countered by saying that the Republicans' plan, which would have preserved the current benefits for those 55 and over, was not ending the plan but changing it. And some attacks used by Democrats advancing the idea -- including an ad featuring an elderly person who appeared too old to be affected by the changes -- went even further.
Personally, I think both sides have a point.
PolitiFact is right to say that a plan which preserves a big part of Medicare doesn't necessarily end the program. And critics are right to voice their belief that the proposed changes are significant enough to be an effective end to the program.
I think the Republicans voted to start a process which would eventually end Medicare over time. That, however, does not sound alarming enough to put on a bumper sticker or in a TV ad. (TIME magazine noted how so much of this debate comes down to such semantics.)
Since PolitiFact is a fact-checking system supported by my employer, the St. Petersburg Times, I'm fully prepared to endure criticism myself that I'm too friendly to their point of view to be objective. True enough, I know lots of folks at PolitiFact and respect their work, but I'm also honest about my conflicts -- so you, dear reader, can decide for yourself whether I'm full of it.
What alarms me most, however, is the hysterical nature of some criticism.
At Gawker, Jim Newell urged people to stop reading PolitiFact, reasoning that "people have bought into their branding gimmick; their ratings." But beside every Pants On Fire or Mostly True rating, there is a long piece explaining why an item has earned that distinction, along with links to sources for readers to follow for themselves. So anyone who chooses can examine the evidence themselves and decide for themselves how fair or accurate the rating is.
A piece for The New Republic dubbed "The Hard Truth About Fact Checking," noted that "the media lives in such abject terror of the perception of bias that it has, in a sense, decided to outsource a big part of its job: telling readers what the real deal is." Perhaps, but I think that notion glosses over an important point.
It's obvious from this Lie of the Year debate that there are at least two ways of looking at such issues. I think it would be difficult for a news reporter to declare one side valid over the other in the some of these issues and keep reporting from the trenches. Sometimes, it helps to have a referee step in.
That said, the St. Petersburg Times has political reporters who write analytical pieces all the time. We had an ace metro columnist, Howard Troxler, who spent lots of time dissecting these kinds of issues (his successor starts in January, when we become the Tampa Bay Times). And every so often a knucklehead like me weighs in, as I did on this column about Herman Cain, race and the allegation that coverage of the sexual harassment story involving him was a lynching.
There's truth to the idea that beat reporters should have more latitude to write similar stories. But to say that a newspaper like the St. Petersburg Times has completely turned that function over to PolitiFact isn't quite the whole story, either.
In the end, I feel the same way about this stuff as I do about the TV reviews and critical pieces I write. My job, in those settings, is to offer an analysis with enough transparency and detail that readers can decide for themselves whether they agree with my conclusions.
Seems the same thing has happened here with Lie of the Year.
The question for critics: Should one disputed call really devalue the whole operation?